by Jeff Lytle

The Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples marks its 10th anniversary inspiring children. It also welcomes a new CEO, Jonathan Foerster. Jeff Lytle interviews him for Life in Naples.

1. How do your past jobs prepare you for your new role at CMON?

I think each professional experience I’ve had since moving to Southwest Florida in 2003 has been a steppingstone. Working as a journalist, first at the Naples Daily News and then at Gulfshore Life, not only helped me to become intimately aware of the community and its needs, but also the role philanthropy plays in responding to our community challenges. We’re blessed to be beneficiaries of that at CMON.

My journalism career also taught me how to ask the right questions, diagnose problems and think outside the box for solutions.

I’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors throughout my time in the nonprofit sector. I learned what a best-in-class non-profit looks like from Kathleen van Bergen and the team at Artis-Naples. During my tenure at Humane Society Naples, I not only gained a wealth of fundraising experience, but also had a tremendous mentor in Executive Director Sarah Baeckler Davis. I really wouldn’t have felt ready to take this step without her.

Finally, my five months as chief operating officer at CMON allowed me to better understand the organization before taking over as CEO. I’m grateful to the board and former CEO Dena Rae Hancock for their faith in me.

2. Is there anything new on the horizon in terms of exhibits or programs at the museum?

One of the things that sets CMON apart from many other children’s museums throughout the country is our fine art collection and we’re going to really highlight that. Art experiences provide a gateway to imagination and creativity that children are excited to step through and use as a passage to the greater world around them.

We’re also using this 10th anniversary as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the idea that CMON is a community amenity that should be available to all children and families.

We’ve introduced special $2 tickets for families who are eligible for the EBT program and are looking at ways to increase access to Title I elementary students.

We’re looking forward to bringing back special nights for children who are using services of organizations like Youth Haven, St. Matthew’s House, Friends of Foster Children and the Shelter for Abused Women & Children. And we are continuing our Exceptional Nights, which offer a safe space for children with sensory and developmental disabilities to explore themuseum.

3. CMON has prided itself on strong collaboration with schools. Will that continue and/or expand?

The COVID-19 pandemic put much of that on hold. We are excited about rebooting our field trip program. We also know that not every student can get to the museum; that’s why we’re thrilled to start offering in-school experiences. But it isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Organizations that provided funding for some of these programs shifted their focus or their resources to other areas, or simply didn’t have funds available.

We know that collaboration with schools and other educational institutions is of paramount importance and we look forward to growing opportunities in the future.

4. What did officials at CMON learn from the pandemic?

I think the lessons we learned are similar to those of other non-profits. We need to be nimble and be ready to pivot when the situation requires. While CMON has operating reserves, like many other non-profits we learned that we need to build our capacity for resiliency.

We are lucky to operate in a very generous community, which made weathering 2020, and into 2021, possible. We also have learned, as the pandemic has eased, that families really rely on CMON.

The past six months have been tremendous in terms of admissions and memberships. We are bouncing back and hoping to build on that for the future.

5. CMON certainly ranks alongside other first-class local facilities such as Artis-Naples, Naples Botanical Gardens and Naples Zoo. What does that say about the power and depth of local philanthropy?

I think it’s clear that Collier County residents have a certain expectation for what it takes to be a well-rounded community and we believe that CMON plays a meaningful role in that ecosystem.

Those other organizations are part of that, too. I would add a host of other cultural organizations, from Gulfshore Playhouse and Naples Players to Opera Naples to Naples Art and many, many more.

While we need philanthropy to help feed the body and care for those in our community who are struggling, there is also a need for organizations that inspire the mind and nourish the soul. We need that at all stages of life. CMON is just one of many organizations in the community carving out our niche to make the whole a better place.

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